Tag Archives: water

Washing clothes in a drought

Last night, I washed my clothes in my new flat for the first time. In the UK, that would be a complete non-story. But nothing is ever simple in Bolivia.

In this flat, the washing machine’s drainage hose isn’t permanently in a drain. We have to put the hose into the shower – but first, we fill a storage bin. The waste water, we use to flush the toilet. This is to save water.

Bolivia, and Cochabamba in particular, has been struggling from such a severe drought that a state of emergency has been declared. People in hard-hit rural areas have been receiving food aid. Bolivia’s second-largest lake, Lake Poopó, dried up in December 2015.

This has devastated the lives of the Uru communities living on what used to be the shores: as people who lived by fishing the lake, hunting water birds, and working with reeds, they are not used to skilled labour or keeping livestock. The community leaders I spoke to said this had reduced families to migrating for the least skilled manual labour and harvesting other people’s fields in return for some of the produce.

Although we have plenty of water in my part of the city, we recycle it anyway, because we know its value.

I stood by the bin, watching the dirty water pouring in, astonished at how fast such a big drum was filling up even though the washing machine was set to”eco”. It kept pouring out into the shower long after the bin was full. What we collected was less than half of the water.

Watching this so soon after visiting communities devastated by drought gave me a feeling something akin to a small child realise that for them to eat meat, somebody had to kill an animal. All this time, I had been wasting so much water, and it barely even crossed my mind. It was the first time I had visually appreciated how much water a laundry load uses. I never dreamed it would be so much. I felt the urge to get another bin, to save and re-use all of the water.

UK mains water is drinkable, while in many communities in Bolivia, people have to drink water delivered by dirty water tanks because they have no other option. That means we Brits, and residents of many other rich countries, take the most pristine water and pour it straight into the washing machine, from where it goes straight down the drain. Before I came here, I had never heard of anyone recycling dirty laundry water to flush the toilet. I wouldn’t even have known how to take the hose out of the drain in London. I can’t even begin to imagine how many litres of water that is over my lifetime. Swimming pools of the stuff.

In the UK, there are a lot of people who think it’s unacceptable not to shower every day, who flush the toilet every time, even after the tiniest wee. Having lived here, this attitude seems profligate, positively licentious. Every week I see imploring e-mails and workplace announcements not to use water, to take brief showers. Even in nice bars and clubs, you learn to carry hand sanitiser, because you turn on the taps and nothing comes out. There isn’t enough water for the utility company to provide it to everyone every day.

When Bolivians wash up, they moisten the sponge, scrub the plates, and then turn the tap on to very quickly rinse them. There are stickers all over the place, produced by the local water company, telling us to brush our teeth using a glass, rather than under the running tap.

I am not an ecologist. I’m not saying that Bolivia’s endemic water issues, which are incredibly complex, would be solved if Europeans started chucking their laundry effluents down the toilet. But living here has transformed how I see water.

Even as one of the least affected, to me this drought is a sinister reminder that water really is a valuable natural resource. Much as we only really feel the value of money when we’re running out, only value time with a person when we can’t see them, this has made me feel viscerally that our access to freely flowing, crystalline drinking water is not a constant. It is something that the vast, omnipotent system that is our unhappy climate can and does take away. All too often, that doesn’t even cross our minds until it’s too late.



Water worries and Sick Backpacker Face

Yesterday morning, my shower was cold. We’re in an upmarket hostel in downtown Cochabamba, and this was the first time the hot water had failed. We knew hot water didn’t come as standard in Bolivia, and that we’d be taking a few cold showers in our time here. As it turns out, that isn’t even the half of it.

Leafing through the classifieds in the local paper, I found plenty of flat adverts that included “agua” alongside bedrooms, garages, etc. I wondered what that meant. Perhaps it meant that there was hot water? Or drinking water?

I took an intensive Spanish course this week, and we soon broached the subject of water.

“Do you like it when it rains?” my teacher asked.

“Sometimes,” I said.

“I don’t like it, really, but Cochabamba is having a drought at the moment,” she said. “I should get water three times a week, but I only get it once a week at the moment. A thin stream, for about four hours.”

Ah. I see.

It’s not only hot water that doesn’t come as standard. Water in general doesn’t come as standard. Even people who, by British standards, would be middle-class – university educated, a graduate job – don’t necessarily have water more than once a week.

The piping that exists is apparently old, narrow and in places slightly broken, allowing contaminants into the water.

In some of the poorer southern areas of town, I’m told people don’t have running water at all, instead relying on wells.

Dotted along the roads are signs saying “Mas inversiones para mi agua” – more investment in my water. Apparently, there has been a plan to build a large dam for about thirty years (locals tell me this, I haven’t checked my facts yet). The dam would provide water for the entire town, but the project seems to be dead in the water (ha, ha).

For now, if you can’t afford one of the houses with 24/7 water, it’s a question of turning on the tap at your area’s allotted time and filling up buckets, tubs and containers, then scrimping and saving in the hope that it lasts until this time next week.

Sick Backpacker Face

In two weeks in this hostel, I have seen four backpackers wiped out with stomach gripes. The first was our Danish room-mate. One night, I woke up to the sound of her talking to God on the porcelain telephone, and for the next four days, she was prostrated on her bed, making occasional dashes for the communal bathroom. There have been three more like her since. You start to recognise the sick people: the ones who aren’t up at breakfast, who are in bed all day looking fed up. They have Sick Backpacker Face.

Bolivia is notorious among backpackers for food poisoning. Do you think you have an iron stomach? Shut up. I don’t care how long you’ve been backpacking. You don’t. Don’t buy that street food. No, it isn’t like that pop-up Venezuelan arepa concept in Shoreditch. Just don’t.

The common wisdom seems to be: don’t eat street food, don’t eat salad, wash any fresh produce from the market, and don’t drink the tap water without boiling it. Bolivians tell me they also get sick, although not as often, and are careful about street food.

Another sick room-mate explained yesterday that she’d been to the doctor after a week of diarrhoea, who’d told her that it was parasites, and that in serious cases, they could spread to other organs. Judging by her comments and the Rough Guide Bolivia health page – one of those things you read through a grimace while wishing you weren’t reading it – she has amoebic dysentery. As Andy said, at least she won’t get lonely while she’s recuperating.

The router in this hostel appears to be dodgy. It cuts out constantly. But lately, I’ve noticed that it intervenes just at the right time: when I’m starting to think about an ex, when I should really be in bed, when I’ve spent too much time online… Maybe the router has a soul. At least someone is looking out for me here.

To end on a high note: we’ve found a room to rent! It’s in a house with a Bolivian family. The mother loves lace crochet, they have a very big scary dog and a very little happy dog, and our wall has a giant picture of Captain America on it. We’re moving on Sunday. This whole emigration thing is starting to feel pretty real.